Why is inat so inconsistent with paraphyletic groupings that are still useful to have

So, yeah, don’t know how to preface this really, besides that inat is definitely inconsistent when it comes to intentionally having paraphyletic groupings for the sake of making it easy to search for certain groups. The big ones that come to mind for me are Reptilia and Sauria. Reptilia on inat is the very traditional view of it excluding birds, which, despite being paraphyletic, is useful to have when searching for observations in a given area. Sauria is defined as the descendants of the last common ancestor of Lepidosauromorpha and Archosauromorpha, yet on inat it just shows you “Lizards”, as in Squamates excluding snakes, which, again, very incorrect, but undoubtedly useful to have.
Despite this, there’s no easy way to search for something like “moths”, as in Lepidoptera excluding Papilionoidea, without messing with taxon ids and the url. I recall a thread about this topic in the past where the consensus was “inat can’t add a way to search for moths because moths are not monophyletic”, even though there are several glaringly paraphyletic but useful groupings on inat, so I guess my question is just, why the inconsistency?


There’s no taxon for moths, so there’s no actual ability to add moths, birds or snakes always have own taxon no matter what view on their place in taxonomy. And staff said that iNat won’t use non-taxonomical groupings.


that’s exactly the point @averagewalrus was trying to make though. The inconsistency behind iNat not wanting to use non-taxonomic groupings but yet still having things like “Reptilia” and “Sauria”


Suborder Sauria on iNat only includes lizards. Reptilia is still widely used despite being paraphyletic. Does anyone still use Heterocera for moths?

I see it a bit like how we talk about fruits and veggies. We have the formal botanical definitions for fruit and vegetable, but then we have a separate culinary concept with the same name that many people are familiar with. But it wouldn’t make sense to import those culinary definitions into a site that categorizes plant parts using the botanical nomenclature.

iNaturalist follows the standard classification system used by biologists. Biologists have been using the Aves grouping for classification since the beginning of classification systems. And biologists have continued to recognize the concept, despite the insistence by some that all groups need to be monophyletic. The grouping is useful and has so much inertia that it’s unlikely to stop being used, so it has remained part of taxonomic systems.

Moths, on the other hand, have been considered paraphyletic by taxonomists since the beginning: “Linnaeus divided the group into three genera – Papilio, Sphinx and Phalaena.”. That has, of course, continued to evolve. So iNaturalist is again merely following the taxonomists. This isn’t an inconsistency on the part of iNaturalist, it’s an inconsistency on the part of taxonomists. Perhaps take the issue up with them.

It isn’t the place of the iNaturalist community to re-order biologists’ taxonomic systems just to suit our common way of talking about species. Like in botany, it’s better to help people to recognize that a tomato is only a “vegetable” when it’s in the kitchen and it’s a fruit when looked at by a botanist.


I think both “sides” are correct here and that the only clean solution would be to introduce the ability to introduce extra-taxonomic “aliases” for ad-hoc sets of taxons. These could be either global, for the popular ones, or even customizable, for your individual preference - you’d just select all taxa you want to group and give them a name under which you could search them etc…

In an ideal world, this could be just implemented as a feature, but programming is expensive and iNat is clearly stretched quite thin already in this regard, as many other suggestions, that would be probably appreciated by even more people, are often deferred to “later” - that’s just the reality of life.


Aves is in fact monophyletic – it’s Reptilia as traditionally used that isn’t. There are authors that recognize Aves as a clade within Reptilia, which would solve the issue. (In this particular case, the problem seems to be more of an issue with ranks of taxonomy – if we insist that Reptilia and Aves are both classes and therefore equivalent, then we can’t recognize the evolutionary paths in question.)


Reptilia as used on iNat and elsewhere – even by herpetologists – is indeed paraphyletic. We could arrange the taxonomy on iNat to make it cladistically valid, although I don’t believe there is a firm consensus yet on the classification and rankings. And I don’t think it would be helpful. It’s a paraphyletic arrangement that continues to work even if it’s flawed.


Personally, I still can’t get my head around the taxonomy (which iNat has adopted) that puts whales in the same Order as deer and bison. It might make phylogenetic sense but still hard to process.


First, your topic may fit Curation best (or feature request, if rewritten).

In my previous understanding, all iNat taxa fit into a hierarchical system, where paraphyletic groups (and certain additional kinds of groupings) aren’t possible, as some suggested.

But Symphyta (saw flies, which are paraphyletic) is defined as a suborder, although it also (correctly) excludes Apocrita in iNat. So does this mean some paraphyletic groupings are used?

Either way, it would be good to separately add a group for all (non-sawfly) wasps (within Hymenoptera). I also support the addition of other comparable groups, or potentially also additional relevant “no taxon” groups (e.g. as bugguide.net does). Someone also mentioned moths (if possible).

I assume (1) if at least some such groups are possible to add, it’s a question of need/preference, or (2) if iNat’s current taxonomic system can’t accommodate them, it’s a question of need/preference whether to seek future changes to that system which would allow them.

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Reptilia was widely used without birds for many decades and still is by many, it’s not something that was invented for iNat and imo there’s a huge difference between dividing child group when it achieved higher taxonomical status and making up a group. It’s an English thing to even divide moths and butterflies in a taxonomical way btw. Better ask for invertebrates grouping, though nowadays of course it’s making no sense to use invertebrata as a real taxonomical thing.

Lichen is the biggest issue that I have. As far as I can tell, lichen is a part of fungi, so there’s no way for a lichen expert to just search for lichen to ID, for example. It would be nice if there was a way to tag your observations as non-taxa but recognized groups, even if they needed to be further ID’d to be considered research grade

I second this. Nobody is saying we rearrange biological systematics. But when one taxon in a group is easily recognizable (butterflies), it is useful to have a name for all the other ones (other Lepidoptera), for when you’re sure it’s one of them. Not in the sense that it’s nice to have for your own peace of mind - that’s an ID by itself; a claim that is also falsifiable in that it can be disagreed with definitively.

I think since the backbone structure is fixed, from external taxonomy which is based on cladistics, it would be useful to be able to select somewhere specific, on the ‘tree’, when you make an ID. Not all the time; but a popout, when you’ve id-d it to a certain taxon, you can then select some nodes you’re sure of, or rather nodes to exclude, to refine the selection. That’s also useful when a clade is very diverse (like a wastebasket taxon) but you’re sure of maybe five subclades the item is in and they don’t form a monophyletic /or/ taxonomic group themselves.

For other bookkeeping purposes that might get complicated, you can treat the observation as belonging just to the mother group. But, this should count as speeding along the ID somehow.


Yeah, I guess this is more kinda my issue here, and less the whole thing about moths, that was more just the first example that came to my head
The fact that there’s quite a few paraphyletic groupings on inat, that still end up being useful when searching for observations, why not have tags of some kind for non taxon but still broadly recognizable and useful things

Mostly it comes down to a tradeoff between taxonomy and the way people use the site. When Pisces was broken up a bunch of IDs of sharks and rays ended up as Vertebrates when people tried to ID them as Fish. It’s still an issue for anybody who is a casual naturalist looking for an identification without detailed knowledge of formal taxonomy. There are other examples.

Topics like this: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/list-of-paraphyletic-groups-in-inats-taxonomy/19456/9

and this: https://forum.inaturalist.org/t/create-a-id-category-called-mangroves-that-captures-the-different-families-that-make-up-mangrove-species/6927/19

have discussed this.

As a learning tool for ordinary folks with an interest in nature it’s important that iNat doesn’t assume expert knowledge of anything much. Part of the learning should be developing an understanding of how groups are related, which groups aren’t real and which relationships are mysterious (or at least I think it should be) but a person coming in as a newbie needs to be able to navigate the site.


For further reference on butterflies and moths.

Wikipedia: Many attempts have been made to group the superfamilies of the Lepidoptera into natural groups, most of which fail because one of the two groups is not monophyletic: Microlepidoptera and Macrolepidoptera, Heterocera and Rhopalocera, Jugatae and Frenatae, Monotrysia and Ditrysia.

And here is the way bugguide lists defines their taxonomy (note that BG sometimes leaves out taxonomic groups if they lack any observation photos yet): https://bugguide.net/node/view/57/tree

Although, I haven’t examined what system BG is using for this group specifically. I think the question is still somewhat open of if a division for butterflies and moths (specifically) can be made on iNat or is wanted.

Lastly, the url search terms forum topic explains how to use filtered searches to exclude taxonomic groups, which might be the next best thing in any circumstances where groupings aren’t yet added.

I don’t think that’s the best example. The argument about skippers is not a new one and there are pretty good examples of taxa that are considered butterflies without supposedly diagnostic characters.

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I have two questions:

  1. Why does Apoidea contain an Epifamily for Bees, but not an Epifamily for Apoid wasps? (I know we could use various iNat URLs for searching to capture the 4 wasp families.)

  2. Why does bugguide use “Parasitica” when all those superfamilies appear under “Apocrita” on iNat?

Supply your own examples here, if you think this has got legs; doesn’t have to be butterflies. I would guess it would depend on whether some subclade *has diagnostic characteristics.

But, you might say it’s a better guess to exclude too many Lepidoptera rather than include too many of them, depending on the probability your sample is inside the excluded vs the included Lepidoptera.

I put them in Lecanaromycetes and @jurga_li sorts them out for me.